Monday, 8 August 2011

Karamea, By Luck Or Design

Here's some idea of what awaits you on the western front of the Heaphy Track. Written from an eco-tourism perspective, the scene depicted below also applies to Heaphy riders.

By luck or design, you have discovered Karamea on the West Coast of the south island. You will see from your map that it is both the end of the road and a 100km tangent from the accessible loop that is Nelson, Greymouth, Christchurch. The guidebooks will entice you with promises of unspoilt native bush and the massive Oparara limestone arches but, unless you are a geologist with botanical leanings, will you break the cycle and take the road less travelled north?

There are precious few expressions profound enough to describe the Karamea effect but after nearly 10 years of travelling that northern route, I have summarised the experience thus; A winding mountain road you will travel, and, where you crest the brow of the ridge, you will enter a world where man and nature live silently and slowly together, guided by the pulse of the planet.

Hemmed in by mountains to the north, east and south, the plateau that is known as Karamea is carved by the mighty rivers that flow from the deep mountain gorges. The landscape undulates westward where it is peeled back by the raging currents of the Tasman Sea and 35kms of white sand beaches are interrupted only by lagoons and wetlands. The inland horizon consists of continuous mountain ridges, covered by dense, sub-tropical rainforest. The offshore horizon, when viewed from the summit of the Karamea’s closest peak, Mt. Stormy, is a glimpse at the curve of the earth and a nod to man’s impotence in the face of such a wild environment.

Having moved from Ireland, the scale of the setting continues to refresh itself in my eyes. There is no end to appreciating the diverse beauty of this place. I was accustomed however, to history being evident at every turn. In Karamea, it largely travels in one line along the old Greenstone trail, where the early Maori followed the coast south in search of the sacred stone. This is no less a depth of history than Ireland’s, particularly as the setting of the trail has changed so little since those early footprints.

The culture, as we know it today, was born when a selection of emigrants from Europe were sent to settle the land in 1874. Ever before sustainability was part of the agenda, the pioneers who landed on the banks of the Karamea River sowed a seed of survival that flourished through the ages and rings through to the present day. The locals, fierce in their pride of place, have nourished the skills and ethos required to live here and impart their ways to the newcomers who have come to the end of the road.

Karamea offers a range of organic and sustainable products; biogro certified tea tree from True Blue Organics, feijoas, tamarillos, and passion fruit from Moynihans Overflow Orchards and home-grown veg, meat, eggs, herbs and fruit from most establishments in town. It is a model that permeates the whole community and is probably best embodied by the Rongo Living in Peace project, a certified carbon-neutral enterprise that fosters art, permacuture and music.

As for eco-tourism, you might as well take a whole year off if you’re coming to Karamea. Aside from endless, hiking, fishing, climbing, caving and kayaking, cycling is the new craze in town. The Heaphy Track, (the renamed Greenstone Trail) the longest of New Zealand’s ‘Great walks’ is hosting mountain bikes over a 5 month winter trial from 2011-2014. While cycling the Heaphy is by no means a walk in the Kahurangi National Park, it is an intensely rewarding experience that will leave you exhausted and pumped all at once.

While the adrenalin menu bristles with appetising adventures, Karamea really stands out as a place to just simply ‘be’. It takes about a week to adjust to Karamea time, but when you do, you will see that the pace of this place will cleanse you of all your time related strains. Devoid of cellphone coverage, you will use the rise and fall of the tide and the sun to mark the passage of your day. Sunset over sea and moonrise over snowy peak becomes your nightly must-see as the need for technology and material wealth fade with the light.

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